Cajun bought the farm coming in low over the target, a suspected Viet Cong supply dump. His knack for air-to-ground strikes was the reason I’d picked him to be Boomer’s wingman on this sortie, but the kid had been rattled by the hail of anti-aircraft fire on the approach to the target and now he didn’t know which way was up anymore. He probably didn’t feel a thing when the ZSU tore up his Phantom. Some crusty old Skyraiders turned up to assist the search-and-rescue effort after a badly shaken Boomer returned to the carrier, but not even that unexpected help was enough to find Cajun. Rest in peace, kid. There’s two days to go in this campaign and I don’t have a single pilot left who can open a can of beer without it foaming out the top.
At its best, Phantom Leader is a springboard for wonderful emergent storytelling. There aren’t too many gamers who wouldn’t want in on that kind of action. But here’s the rub – it all takes place in your head. Phantom Leader is an excellent iPad game, but it’s also one of the most literal board game translations I’ve seen this year. It manages to simultaneously be one of the best iPad games of the year while being one of the biggest missed opportunities as well.
The game at the core of Phantom Leader is unassailably good. You assume the role of a USAF or US Navy squadron leader in Vietnam, leading your chosen pilots through a campaign of up to seven missions. You’re steeped in historical detail and given a big box of toys to play with: A-6 Intruders and F-104 Starfighters, Mk 82 bombs and AGM-12 guided missiles. You make high-level decisions like which missions to undertake and which aircraft to bring, and nitty-gritty tactical calls like telling T-Bone to jettison his bombs to pursue a MiG and which target Whiplash should be targeting with all of those rockets he’s carrying.
When you’re playing Phantom Leader, you will make one tough decision after another and fail often enough that a successful sortie is accompanied by genuine, pulse-quickening elation. And if this was a board games blog, Phantom Leader would be game of the year.
But it’s not – it’s a video games blog. And as a video game, Phantom Leader leaves a lot to be desired. Let’s leave aside for a moment the very steep learning curve for those unacquainted with Dan Verssen’s X Leader series. Phantom Leader has been transformed into an iPad game via the most direct, unimaginative route possible.
As near as I can detect, there are two sound effects in the entire game: one when you click on an on-screen button, and one sound of the virtual dice rolling. Besides those dice, there’s also not one single animation. Nothing. All of these great war machines at your fingertips and they don’t move or make a sound, not the roar of a jet or the bark of a AAA gun. Never has the act of dropping two thousand pounds of bombs felt less visceral in a video game.
Besides the lacklustre presentation, many of the game’s UI elements are downright confusing at first because Phantom Leader prioritises its slavish recreation of the board game over clarity and accessibility. The physical version of Phantom Leader is played with cards and counters, which the game reproduces in every instance, even if there was a simpler way to do it on, oh I don’t know – an iPad. Like the one you’re holding.
Literal board game translations don’t need to be so uninspired: look at Playdek’s Ascension, a straight one-for-one interpretation of the Ascension card game. Even though that game doesn’t replace the monster cards with animated models of hell beasts, it still feels like a slick, polished touchscreen game. Cards animate, sound effects bring actions to life. The UI is crystal clear and uses colour and interactivity to gently stop you from performing illegal actions and prompt you to make appropriate moves. Ascension is a literal translation, but one that is full of life.
Why didn’t the developers take advantage of the powerful computing device they were creating for? Instead of a slideshow of static cards, why not a few aircraft models to play with? Why not inject a little more menace into those AAA batteries with some sounds and colour?
Even if there are philosophical or financial barriers to doing that sort of thing, it would have been nice if there was even the barest hint of a meta-layer to the game. I’m not even talking about the ability to carry pilots over from one campaign to another (which you can’t do) – there isn’t even a “game over” screen. Seriously, there isn’t one. Bloody Pong had a “game over” screen.
After that whole rant, the inescapable fact is that Phantom Leader is a very good game. Somehow without any sound effects, without a single animation, Phantom Leader succeeds in creating dramatic and exciting situations like few other games. Once I had gotten refreshed on the rules and stopped actively lamenting the missed opportunities, I found myself completely enthralled by it. I’m not opposed to letting the most exciting parts of a game live in my imagination (that’s where the best parts of X-Com and Silent Service happened, after all), but I hope the next DVG title on iPad gives my imagination a little help.
4 out of 5
- iPad edition: Phantom Leader for iPad, $14.99